It slips by in such a way that you’d be forgiven for not picking up on it, but it’s key to everything that we see in XY Chelsea, the necessarily jagged new documentary portrait of US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. This is it: The soldiers who serve in the military are so, so young, someone notes, and few people realize this. Even now, after all she’s been through and for as long as she’s been in the news, Manning is only 31 years old, and spent a significant chunk of her 20s in prison. Her decision, while she was serving in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, to leak sensitive and classified army documents to Wikileaks, was a decision she made in her very early 20s, when she was still trying to figure out who she was… when in fact she joined the army to help her try to figure out who she was.
I say this not as any sort of excuse for her whistleblowing: it doesn’t need to be excused; she absolutely did the right thing; the world needed to know that American soldiers were committing war crimes and the US government was covering it up. That’s the position of this documentary, too, the feature debut of British filmmaker Tim Travers Hawkins. But Manning’s relative youth is why the film feels, at times, scattered, uncertain, even a little lost: because it is reflecting its subject.
Opening on the day that Manning was released from military prison in 2017, her unprecedented 35-year sentence having been commuted by President Barack Obama as one of his last acts in office, XY Chelsea is a remarkably humane and perceptive portrait, one that does not attempt to shoehorn Manning into any preconceived boxes but simply follows her as she picks up the task of figuring out who she is. That had been on hold during her seven years in prison, even though she did announce her gender transition while behind bars and successfully sued the US government to allow her to begin hormone therapy; she still remained at the all-male facility where she was incarcerated, and she was not permitted to forego required male grooming, such as keeping her hair short.
Her story, limned by Hawkins with a pensive melancholy, takes place against that backdrop, of coming back to life after prison and picking up her journey of self-discovery, of finding her voice and her confidence and her purpose. So much of what Manning haltingly gathers to tell us about herself offers a massive challenge to what a soldier looks like and what it means for young people adrift in themselves and in the world to be drawn to the armed forces. (“There are a disproportionate number of trans women in the military,” Manning says… and that feels like it needs to be a documentary all on its own.)
There is a huge unspoken criticism of the US Army here, for outright marketing itself as a good way for immature young people to grow up, acquire skills and self-discipline, and find themselves… and then only accepting a very narrow range of what a young soldier might learn about him- or herself. (The army motto I remember from when I was a kid was “Be all that you can be.” But only for certain limited values of “all,” it would seem.) Which adds a huge dollop of irony to Manning’s tale: the fact that she was not accepted as a trans woman in the army, that she was not allowed to be herself, surely contributed to the sense that she had little to lose in becoming a whistleblower.
Manning denies here that being trans contributed to what she did that landed her in prison — and hailed by plenty of Americans and others as not only vitally important but actually patriotic — and it’s not impossible to see that she might have done the same thing had she not been dealing with her gender identity. As a whole package, though, Manning is a tremendous example of personal bravery and integrity, and of the power of directing one’s own unhappiness (whatever the source) into positive action. Comfortable people have little motivation to take on the world.